Nov. 25th, 2012

shalanna: (Default)
(The book Ruined by Reading is great, BTW. But I'm going to talk about how I, personally, have been ruined by reading during the sixties and seventies when books were different . . . not like they are now, for the most part, because they had much more detail and lots of introspection, generally, weren't bereft of flashbacks, and relied on character development more than on raw action. In other words, they were not at all like the books the marketplace devours now, and thus I am even more of a fossil. Authors then were lions. Most of the new sensations are but cubs.)

Where am I when I'm reading? Who am I when I read?

This is part of the vicarious experience I read for, the "vivid, continuous dream" that the author and I are co-creating. The bizzy-buzzy of consciousness yields to the cooperatively imagined world, and the writer takes possession of the screen with his or her words alone. (Even if there are illustrations in the book!) I hear with my mind's ear and see with my mind's eye as though We Are There, and I sympathize with or identify with or at least feel for whoever is telling the story at any given time. Or I'm fascinated despite my loathing for or dislike of the antihero, and I read on to find out what happens.

If I'm immersed in a good story, I am not sitting in the easy chair or stretched out on the sofa. Well, my overmind is aware of sitting in the chair, sure: I know if it starts getting cold, or if it's raining, and whether I need a bathroom break, and if I smell someone cooking dinner. There's also a part of my mind keeping track of the little delights of reading, which for me are things like a clever turn of phrase, a beautiful sentence, an insightful description that places me at the scene, a literary or pop-cultural allusion, and so forth. This part also tracks typos, howlers, grammatical errors, plot holes, poor motivation, implausibilities and impossibilites that I am not convinced I must accept by the power of the story. I am never "pulled out of the story" by any of these things. I know others say that they are, even by proper punctuation with which they are not familiar (such as the semicolon or colon, believe it or not.) I am SO lucky to have a multi-track reading consciousness. It is FAR more desirable to have this than to have the weak condition of "this word pulled me out of the story because I didn't know it" or "semicolons always tear me out of the story and make me aware I'm reading." That's really strange, to me, probably because of the way I was originally taught (or self-taught) to read, but that's a different rant, for another post.

You constantly hear, "Show, don't tell!" But ALL stories are told, ultimately. What is meant is "Dramatize, don't narrate." But even then you can't dramatize everything down to every detail. You have to use some narrative summary, telling, or telling by omission so that the book won't be endless and boring.

When someone is telling you a story through written words, your sensory memory is activated. You remember how coffee smells (wonderful, but it's a bitter brew and too hot to swallow), how dirt feels as you scrape through it with your nails, how whipped cream tastes and feels on your tongue, how the cold wind of a Chicago Christmas rips right through your scarf and coat, how the sun warms your head as you bend over a gardening task, what the color name "tangerine" or "turquoise" means for you, and so forth. You begin to hear the character's thoughts and understand her viewpoint. You worry about story events and what is about to happen. You feel the hot-air balloon rising and panic as the elevator grinds to a halt between floors. You are co-creator of this story. And that's partly why the movie version seldom really fits with your idea of the book. It's like a parallel story when you watch the film adaptation and see the characters portrayed differently from the way you pictured them in your mind. (Sometimes a better story, sometimes parallel but different, sometimes worse and you can't stand to look at it.)

The sense of Being Elsewhere while reading is the reason you "can't put that book down." Your mind has entered a flowstate of creativity as you create the book's world. It's a happy state for the mind, and it's part of what you recall when you think of the book. Do you remember the plot all that clearly? Maybe you remember the really shocking plot twist or the curious way that the story was laid out. But stronger than this should be your recollection of the characters and your liking for them. What are they doing now? What would they be doing if they were still on the storyline? You'd like another peek behind that curtain.

I don't like to be plunged into a battle scene or car chase or gory thing as I enter the world of a novel. I want to be enticed inside. I want to be hooked. By "hooking" here I mean I need to be intrigued. I need to be teased by the idea of what's about to happen, and I need to either like or be interested in the viewpoint character to whom it is about to happen. When the book opens, the most important character in the scene should be doing something interesting that poses a dilemma (or soon will), but is not something mundane that everyone is bored by like waking up in the morning. The first line or two should raise a story question. "Will Leonard get Penny back? She looks sad and as if she's wistful about what happened between them, and he is winsome and earnest and full of puppy-dog yearning." "Will they actually get this car started again? Will the boat start sinking?"

If the author begins the book with a battle in the first sentence, I don't even know who these people are or who to root for. I've got to be grounded in the Ordinary World (from the Hero/Heroine's Journey paradigm) for at least a couple of paragraphs before I can see what it is that Just Changed Today. We need to start on the Day Something Changed, but just *before* everything blows up. That way the concussion really hits us. If it starts out with a cacophony of disasters, how can you escalate it? How will you keep the book at a fever pitch?

You're not supposed to. You're supposed to have a rhythm to the text. We escalate the tension, then step back for a moment's rest and recuperation and consideration of what all this has meant and how things have changed. This is why even Shakespeare has comic relief and why there is a clown or slapstick character in even the most serious of stories. The reader needs a chance to regroup and catch her breath--although not for TOO long. And don't pack this with tons of backstory and explanation of what has just happened. It's tempting, but don't do it, novelists. Maybe a hint or a pinch of telling, but don't lose your readers.

If I am plunged into the middle of a dismemberment scene or some hideous thing (especially happening to a child or a cat or dog or an old person) as the book opens, I will close the book. I don't need that. We get sufficient black reality watching the news. I don't want or need to relive that sort of thing vicariously. That's me.

I think many readers feel that way.

In the olden days, readers settled in to be entertained, but also to be informed and educated and to give the author a chance to persuade them that something larger is worthy of their attention, something other than the everyday mundane cares. To show readers that love is stronger than hate, or that good conquers evil in the end, or that justice is often done, even if it's done in a manner we didn't expect. We wanted to come away from a book with a better understanding of the eternal human condition and a feeling that all is going to turn out as it should. Or we wanted to have a catharsis and a good cry over what's unfair and a need to understand why bad things happen when good is ultimately in control. We wanted the story to be about something larger, something important. We didn't want to say, at the end of the book, "Is that all there is?" We didn't want to feel that we'd wasted several hours waiting for something meaningful to come clear to us. Some books today aren't really about anything (and this has always been true, but seems even truer in the free books you can get everywhere now). Some books are not fulfilling. They aren't even just fun popcorn that leaves you at least A LITTLE not hungry . . . they're vapid and devoid of serious meaning. (Serious meaning can come out of comedy. Trust me on this, or go read the ancient Greeks and the current greats. They both know this.)

I write books that are like the books I would like to find and read. They tend to be more like books written in the seventies and before--maybe the early eighties, up until after the Brat Pack got finished changing the paradigm and before vampires began to rule the daylight. My books have introspection. Not a MESS of it, but they have it. I think it's something that readers want. A little philosophy, then some seltzer down your pants--it creates balance and brings understanding of the oneness of all (or at least of the way that what goes around, comes around.)

I don't have just PAGES AND PAGES of DESCRIPTION, although it may seem that way to readers accustomed to defaulting to "an average room" all the time. I can't stand books that don't set the scene. I tire of books with the setting always inside someone's office, in the car, on the phone, in a restaurant. Why not set some scenes in interesting locations that readers haven't been to, but would like to visit? In the eighties there was a huge boom in the glitz and glamour genre, the "Lifestyles of the Filthy Rich and Undeservedly Famous" stuff that Joan and Jackie Collins (no relation, alas) wrote. People were tired of seeing the inside of the trailer, the factory, the pickup truck; they wanted a peek inside the skyscraper, the villa on the Italian coast, the Mercedes. This genre is mostly over now, but those books had description, and it brought readers into the scene. I like books that set a scene deftly with a couple of lines. You can describe a character who walks in with a couple of lines if you have the telling details, too. (But no looking into the mirror! No fair having them see their own reflection in the plate!)

I want some of the author's sensibility and some of the author's mind in the book. I want to feel as if we are simpatico in some way, kindred spirits who saw beneath the surface and dealt with issues and dreams that are not superficial and not just the "look good, meet hottie at bar, have sex, drink, pass out" stuff that today's society seems to glorify. I'd like to think that I now understand some of the author's (as well as the characters') philosophy of life. (Of course the author and the character(s) are not the same, and what the character believes is usually NOT what the author believes! Still, in the author's voice and approach are clues to what he or she truly feels deep down and holds as most cherished.) Even if I disagree or am repelled by that philosophy, I *understand* it.

I have walked a mile or more in someone else's shoes.

I know why he or she feels as s/he does. I know that he or she has a reason for every action, even if I don't believe that reason is logical or moral. I know that this character is an authentic person/composite who could exist and who illuminates some aspect of life as well as bringing us a story we savored.

Don't make the people who write and sell the shallow stories ALWAYS dominate the charts. Try someone who does it a little differently. Why have the works of the Dead White European Males lasted? Not because "teachers wanted them to," I assure you. If you were properly introduced to a play written in ancient times complete with Greek chorus, you would find in it all the stuff you are looking for when you read a vampire-zombie mashup today. If you read a Victorian novelist, you would find the same human feelings and dilemmas we face, albeit filtered through that worldview and society's limitations placed on people of that time. Remember that any work is of its time, and you can't place OUR sensibilities and our ideas of right action on THEM. (Slavery, oppression of women and underclasses, wars over stupid stuff--yes, that's the way it was back then. But you can SEE the humanity despite these differences, find the parallels in the situations we face today, and ultimately comprehend why "there but for the grace of God go I" is so resonant.)

People still read LITTLE WOMEN, GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, SHOGUN, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. They love Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Dickens, Proust, Vonnegut, Twain, and Kerouac (et alia) today. Do you think they stink because you had to sit in a classroom and have these works shoved at you in a totally messed-up way? Well . . . it wasn't the fault of the great books.

Give a deeper book, an "old" book, a classic or a book that was a HUGE best-seller in the past, a chance. It might teach you something--maybe even that you enjoy reading things that are not done at a breakneck pace, texts that have subtext and allusion and clarity as well as GO GO GO action and humping. Words with multiple meanings and cadenced prose. Try it. You just might like it. And if you don't--what have you lost? You've learned something about yourself. If you DO like it--congratulations! You have grown. You have stretched. And you are in good company with the many, many generations of readers over the years who cherished those stories.

(Obligatory Plug: There are new books with depth, too. If you feel so moved, you could even download the NEW KINDLE EDITION of one of my mysteries. Cheap! $3.99 and $1.99! What's not to like?)







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November 2012

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